cover image of Fat Camp by Deborah BlumenthalFat Camp by Deborah Blumenthal


I arrive at camp seminauseous from the bus ride and nearly starving. Almost three hours, and the “snack” was one medium-sized banana and a bottle of water. It’s almost lunchtime and after we’re shown to our bunks, we’ll get to eat our first meal at Camp Calliope, which some of the kids on the bus are already calling Camp Calipers because we know they’ll be using those plierlike instruments that pinch your fat to measure ours.

But first we’re shown the bunk, which looks like a giant plywood box with exposed ceiling rafters, open closets, an attached bathroom—thank God—and pathetic bunk beds with the kind of thin mattresses they use in prison cells. The upper beds are about a seven-foot climb, so I immediately throw my backpack on a bottom bunk to claim it and then brush off a gynormous dead wasp that I find on top of the mattress.

“God,” I mutter, swiping it with my bag. Flash back to me settling down on my pillow-top mattress at home with the snow-white scalloped sheets and the down pillows, and I’m almost reduced to tears. Carla, who, it turns out, is in my bunk, climbs up the wooden ladder that’s bolted to the side of my bunk bed and says, “I don’t mind sleeping on the top.” She hauls her bag up, but not before pausing to apply more lip gloss which she has done about thirty times since we left Manhattan. I don’t know what she’s doing in this camp—maybe Neiman Marcus’s princess camp was filled. It’s obvious from the sideward glances she gets, that the other girls are wondering the same thing.

We have a counselor named Karen who seems all right—at least not as irritatingly cheery as Charlene—and she introduces herself to all of us. She’s tall and serious-looking with a long brown ponytail. I imagine her shopping for “green” paper towels and having an organic garden. I know that she plays the flute. She’s got a small room, separate from ours, which is good news, because it means we won’t be eyed 24/7. While we’re hauling in our bags, Karen suggests that we take a break and spend a few minutes introducing ourselves to each other. She looks at me, so I start.

“Cam Phillips from Manhattan.” Momentarily I think about following with some right-on remark about not wanting to be there and totally selling out, but hold off. Ditto for adding “being here truly sucks.” When it’s clear that I’m not going to give out any more information, Karen turns to the girl sitting on the bunk bed next to mine.

“I’m Bunny Young,” says a very bleached blonde with a breathy baby voice, who I’ve noticed has brought along a collection of food and dining magazines. Is it my imagination, or does she resemble a younger Martha Stewart minus the Birkin bag?

“I’m from Philadephia—one of the fattest cities in the country,” she adds. Everyone laughs or snickers, and she goes on. “And this is my first summer at a camp like this.” She ends with a shrug. In a flash, I envision her behind a kitchen counter baking pies, because she looks like Miss Homemaker.

“Well, great,” Karen says, breaking in to ease our discomfort. She points to the next girl, who’s tall, with big blue eyes and an easy smile. She’s wearing two thick braids. I can’t help noticing that despite the heat, she’s got on very cool pink cowboy boots. I don’t know why, but I like that.

“Faith Masters,” she says, with a heavy Texas drawl, “from...well, y’all can tell.” We all smile. “I’m determined to lose at least 25 pounds this summer, and that’s why I’m here.” It’s obvious that everybody admires her for wasting no time owning up.

“Great,” Karen says. “And I’m going to do whatever I can go help you get there.” She points to Carla.

“Carla Valentine,” she says in a delicate voice, and then doesn’t say anything for a long time. We wait, curious to see what she’s going to tell us about herself. She tosses back her platinum hair slightly. “And I used to weigh fifty pounds more than I do...” she blurts out. We all stare in disbelief. She’s about 5’10”, and not more than 120 lbs. It’s close to impossible to imagine.

“So...” she says, exhaling for emphasis. “I’m here to keep doing what I’m doing so that I can keep the weight off, because...” she says, staring hard off into the distance. Then she shakes her head and adds, in a rush, “It’s such a damn struggle.” With that, she burst into tears, and all of us are momentarily shocked and don’t know what to do except look everywhere but at her, and try in our pathetic ways not make Carla feel even worse. Karen immediately goes over the hugs her.

“I know how hard it must be for you, and we’re all here to support you.” Carla takes the tissue that Karen rushes to put in her hand and blows her nose. No one says anything, but at that point I’m starting to like her more than I did when I saw her jump out of her Mercedes like a carefree fashion model who was late for a shoot. Karen keeps a supportive arm around Carla for another minute and then points to someone with long, stringy brown hair wearing a bloodred T-shirt and cargo shorts.

“I’m Summer,” she says, head high and acting aloof as though she’s trying to pretend she’s some Hollywood film star. “And when I get home from camp, no one, and I mean, NO ONE is going to recognize me! It’s going to be one big BEFORE,” she says, holding up two fingers on each hand and making little quotation marks, “and AFTER.” She ends with a smile that vanishes in a nanosecond.

“Okaaay,” Bunny says, and we all start to laugh.

Lunch is in the mess hall, a building that’s half the size of an airplane hangar. All around the top of the walls are camp flags that look like the campers stitched them out of swatches of fabric. I later find out that they’re the flags made by the winning sports teams and that the camp has been in existence for almost forty years.

“So weight-loss camps are nothing new,” the director says, giving us the tour. “It’s just that now with fast food and more women working so that fewer meals are served at home, weight issues are greater than ever and more and more people have to relearn the way to eat to stay slim and healthy.”

No one in the group says anything; we’re just following him around like baby chicks. What I’m wondering is whether they’ve figured out how many calories you burn on the tour and if that’s taken into account as part of the day’s exercise, because I sure hope so. Right now, even with the dead wasp, the only thing that I want to do is sleep.

“Well, I’ve talked enough,” Mel says, holding up his hands like a traffic cop. Mel is short for Melvin, and he’s the owner of the camp along with his wife Lillian—who looks more like his mom, because she’s one of those holdout types who refuses to color her gray hair or have the bags fixed under her eyes.

We all head to the tables that our groups are assigned to and then get in line with our trays to pick up our food. I think there’s a reason that we eat cafeteria style—we’re forced to be separated from the food by a stainless steel barrier. I push the red plastic tray along and start loading it with an iceberg lettuce salad and a packet of gluey-looking low-fat Italian dressing, and then take a plate with oven-baked chicken (cornflake crust, I think) posing as fried. To go with it there are dishes filled with whipped potatoes, each portion about the size of an A-cup, coleslaw made with vinegar and probably artificial sweetener—heaven forbid mayo—and string beans. Fresh strawberries and vanilla wafers are dessert.

After lunch, we go back to the bunk and have a free period before heading to the dock for water safety tests that are mandatory before they’ll let us swim or go boating.

“Well, well, look what I found,” says Summer, staring into her backpack. “A Milky Way.” She smiles seductively. “Any takers?”

There’s silence in the bunk as everyone instantly stops writing letters or unpacking clothes. She looks at me with her eyebrows raised.


I pause for a minute and then shake my head. “No. I’m more into Nutrageous.”


She shakes her head.


Carla makes a motion that indicates that she’s throwing up. We all laugh.


The West Texas cowgirl just studies Summer. Then slowly, she sits up in her top bunk bed and swings her legs over to the ladder. She climbs down and walks over to her, hands on hips.

“Show it to me,” she says, challengingly.

Summer reaches into her bag and acts like a magician, suddenly whipping out her fist and opening it. “Fooled ya,” she says, showing us her empty hand and smiling widely. “I was just trying to find out who was the weak link.”

--From Fat Camp by Deborah Blumenthal, NAL Signet, a member of Penguin Group USA Inc.

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